If you are interested in doing business in China or with China, it’s important to understand what networking tools are at your disposal. There are a variety of business networking websites and apps available, both foreign and domestic.
The Chinese version of LinkedIn seems to enjoy the most success, although throughout a year of living and working there, I never heard of anyone using it. For a country that places such high value on interpersonal connections, known as guanxi, China does not seem to consider having a profile on one of these specialized business networking sites a necessity for young professionals in the same way that the US does.
Nonetheless, below I will give a general overview of some of the sites and apps out there and how likely they are to be useful.
LinkedIn. The Chinese version of LinkedIn, known as 领英, was launched in 2014. The English version had been available in the country before that, garnering about 4 million users.
Unlike other US social media, LinkedIn submitted to the Chinese government’s censorship requirements, allowing it to maintain its position inside the Great Firewall. To capitalize on the high number of Internet users in China, LinkedIn decided to create a localized version. Not only did it translate the site’s name into simplified Chinese characters, it added special Chinese features such as the ability to import Weibo contacts or to link one’s WeChat and LinkedIn accounts.
During its Chinese launch, LinkedIn’s chief executive officer announced high hopes of reaching 140 million users in the Middle Kingdom. Although China is the fastest-growing region for LinkedIn, it is still a ways away from that achievement. As of 2016, LinkedIn could boast around 20 million Chinese users.
In the course of my work marketing to Chinese clients in the US, I have occasionally found the Chinese side of LinkedIn helpful, although many of its users seem inactive.
Chitu. Chitu, which literally means “red rabbit”, is an app designed by China’s LinkedIn team to appeal to a younger user base. It is apparently named for a famous warhorse in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. While it is technically part of LinkedIn, I am addressing it separately, as it has a very different feel.
Launched in 2015, this app is geared toward the millennials who drive China’s mobile-heavy Internet market and who are newly entering the workforce. Friendly and approachable, Chitu is meant to make networking less stiff and boring with innovative features like live mode and knowledge monetization. Chitu’s main drawback is that it does not provide access to the same global network that LinkedIn is valued for.
Ushi. Ushi was supposed to be the Chinese stand-in for LinkedIn but it seems to have utterly collapsed. Founded in 2010, Ushi’s Chinese name 优士 means “outstanding professional”. The website ushi.com is down, and I doubt it will be resurrected.
Liepin. Described as an online “HR service provider”, Liepin seems more like Indeed than LinkedIn. Its main goal is to connect headhunters with job-searchers and provides a listing of open job positions.
Maimai. Intended to be a method for organizing and staying in contact with one’s contacts as well as making new ones, Maimai also allows users to post updates either with their name attached or anonymously. Predictably, it has devolved into a gossip outlet, with users taking advantage of the “anonymous” feature to complain about work or tell stories from the office.
Huihui. As the name might suggest, Huihui’s special focus is facilitating in-person meetings (the character hui 会 means “meeting”). While this may indeed be a necessary aspect of the business world, the app may be a little too niche to gain widespread use.
The general lack of success of each of these tools can probably be boiled down to one factor: inability to compete with WeChat. With more than 800 million active users, WeChat absolutely dominates the social-media market in China.
While I’ve written before about WeChat’s drawbacks for foreign companies, it really does make the most sense for users in China. People involved in small businesses spam their friends with advertisements, shops and restaurants drum up business, and business transactions are carried out all on one app.
The need to separate business networking versus personal social-media use that allows LinkedIn to co-exist in the US may eventually lead to the need for a pure-business medium in China, but until then, WeChat is king.